Board gamers have campaign fatigue and publishers need to adapt quickly

The campaign board game is not a new concept. It draws inspiration from tabletop role-playing games, featuring a unified story arc and character progression over multiple linked sessions. The popularity of this genre has increased with the success of games such as Pandemic: Legacy, dark havenAnd Kingdom Death: Monster. Many of these behemoths have sprung up through the success of crowdfunding, which has only ignited the creative spark and endless appetite for this style of board game. I think we have finally reached a tipping point.

There are major hurdles when engaging with these types of games. Above all, they require multiple players to embark on a long journey. Some titles, like Greek myth-punk Aeon Trespass: Odyssey and fantasy anime adventure Middara, require hundreds of hours to complete. I find that absurd. Signing up for a board game shouldn’t require an officiant or license. To make matters worse, I had instances where a regular band member couldn’t make a session. The energy and momentum behind the campaign started to fray and everything fell apart. Now the half-finished board game sits on my shelf, staring at me like a judgmental gargoyle.

Role-players know this pain. But one of the main advantages of RPGs over campaign board games is that their duration can be tailored to your preferences. Additionally, editorial control of the story is held by an individual and can be refined and concluded on short notice. With a board game, you’re just stuck. It’s stiff and prescribed and either you’re strapped in for the entire ride or you miss the eventual climax.

The amount of these campaign board games is overwhelming. The wave of crowdfunding has only bolstered such ambitious design work. There’s a new one every week, promising a jaw-dropping story, mounds of components, and enough content to carry you to your grave. I became exhausted. Just when my group was beginning to grow in our Middara campaign, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood of Venice happened and everyone wanted to move on to that. Beyond my obvious emotional fatigue, pursuing one game after another has become extremely taxing financially. I believe that needs to change.

There is the hunch of a new movement, an attempt to cure these ills. Oath Sworn: Into the Deep Woods is an outstanding boss fighter in the lore of monster hunter And Kingdom Death: Monster. Make an oath is the first title I’ve come across that made a serious attempt to present a flexible campaign system that could adapt to the needs of its players.

In this game, each chapter of the campaign consists of a narrative-driven story section, choose your own adventure, followed by a boss fight skirmish on a large board. There’s a strong sense of world-building as you progress and explore the rich setting, but each chapter contains isolated narrative and confrontation. It fully supports adding characters for a single session. You grab one of the available options and quickly level them up to the appropriate threshold for the adventure. This means you can just skip to any chapter and play Make an oath as a unique experience. It also means that players can drop in and out as the campaign progresses. This degree of design maturity translates to an unusual amount of goodwill, as it’s more likely that a combination of players will be able to play through the entire massive box to the end. The approach here manages the best of both worlds, providing flexibility and laid-back engagement while allowing for dedication. Both methods are equally served and can coexist. I want more of this.

Cover of Legacy of Yu showing a warrior with a reed hat wielding a U-shaped weapon as they attack a water dragon.

Image: Garphill Games

Yu’s Legacy approaches the problem in a completely different way. This new solitaire design forces you to race to build a network of canals to redirect a surging flood while warding off barbarian attacks. In addition to the underserved setting of ancient China, the format is also unique in that it is a refreshingly short, non-linear campaign.

Each session lasts only 40 minutes with extremely fast setup. The entire campaign can be completed in around 8-10 hours. It manages to break down the length and engagement barriers common to these offerings, and best of all, it keeps you feeling fresh with unlockable content. These additional elements, in combination with the non-linear game, create a rewarding and repeatable extended arc.

A render of Legacy of Yu components, showing a peaceful rural setting with colorful boats and dwellings placed on the map.

Image: Garphill Games

As a solitary experiment, it faces inherent hurdles of repetition and lethargy – which it adequately overcomes – but the approach here to smoothing out the wrinkles of the campaign format is absolutely rejuvenating. This bite-sized approach offers meaningful play without swallowing whole swathes of time.

We may be witnessing the start of a trend. The short format continues with the next Bows from Leder Games, publisher of the immensely popular Root. Bows is a space opera in which players rebuild a dying empire. Each session lasts 60-90 minutes, allowing for relatively quick play – certainly for this style of board game, at least.

The campaign format is quietly expanding to just three sessions. Each individual game builds on the last as the group develops a shared emergent narrative. The most intriguing aspect of this approach is that players start fielding symmetrical factions but evolve over time. Unique abilities are learned, leading to singular playstyles through a special intermission mechanic occurring between sessions.

Early Arcs art shows a white and red ship passing through a stylized star system, with one planet ringed and another planet somehow hollowed out.

Picture: Leder Games

It promises to provide a balanced structure that requires minimal commitment, coupled with legitimate mechanical and narrative progression. Although the overall methodology roughly parallels Yu’s Legacy in terms of respecting player time, it incorporates this achievement into a multiplayer format that will support dynamic group play. This is the exact configuration that benefits the most from streamlining the campaign experience. In doing so, the hope is for a compelling design that is decidedly modern.

Engage in just one of the old-fashioned, heavy campaign games of the day and you’ll immediately recognize the enormous benefits of approaching the genre with ingenuity and insight. The natural forces of board games are suited to casually pull a contained experience off the shelf at a whim. In my opinion, the move in recent years towards extended campaign settings is moving away from the benefits of the medium and has started to inflate the market with noise. Hopefully, these creative advancements will move the genre forward and alleviate these particular ills.

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